Forty years later, still a member of the family

By Neil Cameron

Universities can be thought of as being synthetic extended families, with distinguished ancestors , indulgent grandparents, hopeful and fearful parents, quarreling siblings, joyful christenings, tearful funerals; some skeletons in the closet.

I am glad to be part of McGill’s family, but I am not a normal representative of any of its generations. Not quite a black sheep, but something of a battleship grey. My association with the University goes back over

half a century, and included years as a non-academic employee, as a near-permanent McConnell Graduate Fellow, and briefly as a one-year replacement history professor.

As a John Abbott teacher for more than three decades, I also directed many West Island students to McGill.

This summer, it will be exactly 40 years since I completed a McGill MA, briefly covering myself with glory.

But I was never a McGill undergraduate, and never completed my PhD, although I managed to milk the thesis

for several scholarly publications.

I grew up in Calgary in the 1940s, a pleasant and long-vanished little city not yet transformed by oil. My

Scotland-born father, who had graduated in medicine from McGill in 1924, died young; I scarcely knew him.

But my mother had kept the 1924 Old McGill yearbook, and I pored over it as a child, but not with any dream of following in my father’s footsteps.

Finishing high school, I won a modest university entrance scholarship, but it would scarcely cover the cost of McGill’s intimidating tuition fees, even for ordinary arts and science. The comparable fees at Western

Canadian universities ran about $250, a dollar having about 10 times its current value, and were about $375

at Queen’s and Toronto; at McGill it was $550, the highest in the country.

In any case, I had never really imagined becoming a doctor. This I practically took for granted was the specific attraction of McGill, which I constantly heard identified as “a great medical school.” I actually came east in the late 1950s as a transfer student from the University of Alberta to Queen’s, in those days studying mathematics. I liked Queen’s, but concluded I would never be a first-rate mathematician.

After trekking off to Europe with a couple of friends, I came to Montreal in 1962, knowing only a couple of old friends, also non-natives.

All of us arrived just in time to be caught in one of the most severe recessions in the latter half of the century. I eventually landed a job on the reserve desk of Redpath Library, then still McGill’s main university library. I found I liked working for university libraries a great deal, and worked for several over the next seven years, from UBC in mid-decade to Sir George Williams and almost every campus library of McGill. I used them to get on the cheap the history centred liberal education I was by then seeking.

Not a baby boomer, not a Montrealer or Vancouverite nor any more a Calgarian, not an original history student but an ex-mathematics one, not someone whose acquaintance with McGill began in its classrooms but in its bookshelves, I remember what people call “the sixties” as a sort of bemused cultural


What I most remember about 1969 was that I had finally grown up enough – 31 not 21 – to fully appreciate

my encounter with several fine history professors and fellow students, friends as well as colleagues. I learned from them not only history, but something about character and good sense. I treasure

especially the memory of the late Robert Vogel, who taught European history at McGill from the 1960s to

the 1990s. I’m glad to say I was one of the contributors to a Festschrift for him a few  years ago.

I hope that the McGill graduates of 2009 can recall at least one professor, years from now, as I recall Vogel. If they can, then they had “a good university education.”That kind of memory can be far more important than  your degrees.

It binds you to the McGill family forever.

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer, historian, and journalist, and was an independent member of the

Quebec legislature from 1989 to 1994.